The Dark Side of Tea
India's Other Side

India is the second largest tea producer in the world. But while its green leaves are on the shelves of every supermarket and tea boutique across the globe, women workers still live under the remnants of a slavery system conceived under British colonialism.

Written by Matilde Gattoni

Here & Now


ea is one of the biggest industries in India, accounting for 14 percent of world tea exports and employing 3,5 million people, the vast majority of them women. Here, managers still roam on horses, dressed in sleek shirts and shorts in homage to old British custom. Yet, just few hundred meters away from their leafy offices, more than 2,000 tea workers have died of malnutrition in the past 15 years, while scores of others have ended up working as stone crushers, maids or prostitutes in a vain attempt to escape misery.

Our mission was to inform readers who are also tea consumers, often people have no idea where their daily products come from and they don’t have the possibility to act accordingly.

India - West Bengal: Tea pluckers collecting leaves at Makaibari Tea Estates, in the Darjeeling region. Darjeeling tea is one of the most expensive and prized in the world, with almost all its production sold abroad. Its retail price can reach 1,850 USD per kg.

I spend more or less six months on the road traveling the world and 6 months editing, looking for stories, pitching to editors. For the past two years I have worked exclusively on personal projects and it requires an incredible amount of time, patience and passion.



Your photo reportages depict highly controversial issues. How does it feel being on the field and documenting all these events and people?


I feel alive. I always wanted to see things with my own eyes, understand humanity. It can be exhausting, rewarding, scary, saddening but really it’s like experiencing 100 lives at the same time.



How do you think being a photojournalist differs from being a photographer?


I think the difference is the social involvement you have as a photojournalist. I also work with corporate clients and I enjoy both experiences and have learned a lot from both but documentary photography is where my heart is.



How do you choose your stories?


I work along with journalist Matteo Fagotto, we work on global issues that help readers make the connection between the outside world, often isolated communities, and us. We have recently created our own agency Tandem Reportages, with the aim to create independent in-depth reportage.


I always wanted to see things with my own eyes, understand humanity.
India - West Bengal: Shoma (right) and Sugi Munda, respectively 56 and 45, posing while crushing pebbles and stones along the Diana riverbed at Red Bank Tea Estate, in the Dooars region. The garden, which houses 888 workers out of a population of 5,000 people, has been closed since 2013. With no more income, food rations and health services, its workers resorted to stonecrushing in order to survive. According to Shoma, the tea estate started to get into troubles in 1993. The company first stopped mending the workers' houses, then, few months later, it closed down. Then, a series of different owners took over, each of them reopening the gardens for a few years of months, before disappearing again. Workers were not paid any arrear.
India - West Bengal: A woman walking towards a washing point in Pakka Line, one of the villages dotting the Mogulkata Tea Estate, in the Dooars region. Today's workers are the descendants of tribal people who were brought into the tea estates during colonialism, to serve as bonded labourers.

What surprised you the most? Were the workers welcoming and eager to share their lifestyle to thousands, if not to millions of people?


The pluckers were very happy to speak up and be able to tell the world what they are going through, it is a very under reported story and they are not used to seeing journalists around, they really perceived us as messengers. Some asked to remain anonymous and to cover their face for the photographs afraid of the repercussions it might have on them (their boss could fire them for example).



What impact do you think your reportages have on our understanding of certain issues of the world? 


When I posted the tea images on the Open Society Foundation Instagram feed a lot of followers started asking more questions, for instance where they could get tea that did not exploit workers, people want to be aware, informed and free to choose accordingly.

How has traveling effected your life? As a photojournalist, how has your perception changed and developed over time?


I started traveling at a very young age, first with my parents and then on my own, traveling has always been part of my life. I’ve lived several years in the Middle East and was born and raised with a double citizenship and culture so opening up to the world was quite natural to me.



Give us an insight, what are the rewards of your profession and tell us about the hardships you come across (if there is any).


This job gives you an excuse to “jump” into people’s lives, sharing their sorrows as well as their happy moments, every time someone lets you into their lives it is a real gift.

Part of the hardships also comes from sharing people’s sorrow, even with time I haven’t learned to distance myself from the stories I cover, you always absorb part of the sadness, and it stays with you forever.

India - West Bengal: Fulkumari Rai (not her real name), 41, works as a plucker at Makaibari Tea Estates, in the Darjeeling region. Despite Makaibari being one of the most popular tea estates in the region, whose retail tea price can reach up to 1,850 USD per kg, Rai complains workers are constantly neglected by the management. "From the outside everything looks nice, but it's only us who know how difficult is to survive here" she says.
India - West Bengal: Hira Munda, 32, holding her 10-month-old baby Shonali at Bundapani Tea Estate, in the Dooars region. After the closure of the garden in July 2013, Munda, a former permanent worker, was trafficked to Batala, in the Punjab region, where she worked as a domestic worker for one year. The owner of the house repeatedly raped her. The woman was able to come back to Bundapani only after she became pregnant of Shonali. Today, the lone mother survives thanks to government subsidies and few handouts from her relatives.
India - West Bengal: Villagers drying up clothes on the slopes of the Diana river at Red Bank Tea Estate, in the Dooars region. The garden, which houses 888 workers out of a population of 5,000 people, has been closed since 2013. With companies obliged to provide workers with houses, discounted food rations, schooling, water and health facilities, closures often leave workers with no assistance, nourishment or money. Thousands of them have died of starvation in the past decade.
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By Published on May 18 2016
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